From Dog Family to Fat Community: Grieving the loss of One and Opening to the Other
By Claudette Largess, MA
While I physically ache at my dog’s absence, she gave me and my body the power to recognize belonging.
“Start with her breathing”, my post-it note says. It was shallow, belabored, gasping or grasping, and fast. My heart knew my dog was dying. That this was really the end. And, I wasn’t there. I was in another state, both physically and mentally. We shared her last moments on the telephone as my partner held the phone to her snout. I said my goodbyes, my gratitude, and my love for the last time Dilly, my 14-year-old Shepard mix, and I had together before she was brought to the vet to move on from her life and mine.
At the same time, it was the second day of Association for Size Diversity and Health’s (ASDAH) conference in Portland, OR. That day, maybe even the hour, my dog died, I was scheduled to present with three other brilliant people in the field of eating disorders. Anxious and afraid, familiar feelings of not belonging and not being “good enough” filled my mind and rattled my body as I did my best to compartmentalize my pain and grief. My lived experiences as being fat, and a fat person in academia, was one of receiving direct and indirect messages from thin professors, supervisors, and colleagues that large bodies are not capable, professional, or deserving of being in the professions they choose. As I detailed a humiliating experience of my first class in graduate school, where I was the only fat person in the room, the professor went into a 10-minute diatribe of being disgusted when fat people “shove food in their mouths in public” due to their inability to have any self-control or the intelligence to understand what they’re doing is gross and unhealthy. Did I mention this was a counseling degree program? Feeling utterly ashamed, I started to wonder if I should leave school. Who would come to me for therapy with my disgusting fat body? What if someone in public saw me eat? This stigmatization and the systemic effects of eradicating fat people out of school was what I choose to speak about at the conference.
As a fat person, and despite having privileged identities of being white and cis femme, it has been a challenge to even be comfortable in my body and find communal spaces where my body is accepted, welcomed, or -Goddess forbid- celebrated. Dilly was one of the only accepting and non-judgmental sources of support I had when I started school again. When we brought Dilly home, at that time in my life, I was burnt out trying to find full-time work that would provide health insurance and pay the bills. I was also rapidly gaining weight, again. I felt so much body shame. Job interviews were embarrassing as employees would look me up and down with what looked like contempt. My clothes didn’t fit and I was working multiple jobs to make ends meet. When a poorly run lock down facility offered me night shifts, I took it, hoping to hide myself until I could get this all figured out (which I thought meant losing weight). Back then, having a fat body felt intolerable, and working nights made me feel worse. In those five years of night shifts, gaining weight, leaving the lock down facility for better and safer work, and starting school, Dilly always loved me and my fat body. The internalized messages of shame softened with her as I felt compassion and love that included all of me.
Fast forward years later to the conference, after presenting, people came up to me to tell me about similar experiences they had had in their grad school programs. It was validating, at first, but I became more and more saddened by it. Details were different, people had been in many different fields, some people left school and some didn’t- but everyone shared the experience of loneliness and isolation that came from efforts of being fat shamed out of academia. A piece of my story was our story by being shared, witnessed, and held. It isn’t just me and my fat body. Or the grief of loneliness that only a dog could comfort. I was once again reminded that fat accepting community can create connections where I see and hear people-and feel seen and heard.
Community matters. Community matters because we can stop the gaslighting of internalized oppression. Briana Hernandez wrote a piece about the bravery it takes to be fat in public. She noted in Why Plus Size Women Are Brave that, “outside of the vacuum, in the real world, where many fat women don’t have to be fashion bloggers to be mocked, bullied, even assaulted just for daring to be seen by strangers in public, that’s where the danger and the fear comes in. We have learned, rightfully and logically, that there is always the chance someone will shame us just for existing.” Breaking the pattern and belief that fat people deserve oppressive treatment are part of the gifts that fat community has given me. I didn’t always believe this. Any of it. And, I need support to always remember. By reminding me that no level of shame for fat bodies is ever acceptable, the constant holding of this truth helps dismantle the system of gaslighting. And the privilege in this always rests in how this was supported for a white person like myself.
Necessary to ingrain in my privilege narrative is the importance of going back to the truth that the more marginalized a person is, the more oppressions they face. In the sea of white faces, I was and am another white face in the crowd. The ASDAH conference supported my voice as a fat person, which academia and society hasn’t always done, and the question of whether or not I’d be heard or my experience as a white person validated wasn’t a worry I’ve had to hold. The process of being held by fat community has been an amazing curative element in my journey toward Fat Acceptance, and one I’m truly thankful for. Processing my white privilege is looking at the ease in which showing up white is often met, without having to think about it, with safety and belonging.
Complexity can be messy. Areas of grey where the personal and political coincide aren’t always easily reconciled. My narrative is a process that may have various connected elements that weave in and out of emotional sequelae of mine and others’ subjective realities. I’m holding the beauty of being seen and the pain that maybe not everyone got to experience that during the weekend conference. My dog is the catalyst to this piece and thinking through a time I wasn’t seen or heard or valued. Fat communities helped me stop that noise! The current societal oppressions that bring folks together can merge into strength and unity, or be replayed as a parallel form of internalized discrimination. I want to acknowledge with gratitude the amount of work and heart that went into organizing and making that weekend happen- which is also a testament to the power of individuals working tirelessly for community. Integral to any community is a critical lens of what’s working and what’s not, and maybe what is, is what is! The joy of community for me means being responsible for the ways in which I show up, or don’t show up, and the unearned advantages I’ve benefited from. Being at the ASDAH Conference, I’m reminded that community isn’t always all-inclusive and work needs to be done. It’s a process, always a process to do better, to be better, to open and stretch--despite my sometimes feeling the need to isolate.
Because showing up is power, Ashleigh Shackelford powerfully explains how ingrained it is to associate white supremacist beauty standards and thinness with desired feelings of belonging. She wrote, “Love, desirability, sex, joy are obtainable for everyone. More importantly, when women and femmes love ourselves, we become threats and are subsequently silenced. We deserve the right to exist in our power and our individual beauty.” Each tv ad, casual conversation between friends, doctor visits and beyond are often reminders of how marginalized identities are stigmatized or ignored. Fat folks, including so many other oppressed folks, have learned through experience that there is always a chance that someone will shame us just for existing. The fat body that was told love, respect, humanity, kindness, and safety are for the thin and white must be disrupted so as not to perpetuate harm. Fat community can be a powerful salve for the battle wounds of existing as a fat person.
Holding her collar in my hand, a collar once filled with glorious neck fat, I feel the warm memory cool into familiar grief. That’s how we used to refer to her body fat- as glorious. And it was. I’m ashamed to say I almost forgot this. Lost in a land that dictates fat is a harmful gateway to death, two years ago my partner and I got so scared we almost put her on a weight loss diet. How can restriction not be experienced as starvation for a dog, as it has been for me? At the time, Dilly was 12 years old, and being a German Shepard mix, that’s a ripe old age to be. She stopped doing things that her body no longer could handle, such as jump up on furniture and running endlessly at dog parks. I was at a life changing training learning about Body Trust® by the amazing folks at Be Nourished. There, I was also invited with open arms to be in community with one of the most amazing group of folks I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. A true taste of fat community like I have never experienced. This was also in Portland, OR., which ironically seems to be a place where her body story was punctuated by my body’s story of finding fat community. While I was there, my partner asked Dilly to join him on the couch. Hesitant to not listen to her body, and wanting a cozy snuggle, she jumped up next to him. Then, she sprained/injured her back. She wasn’t able to walk. Worried with panic and guilt, my partner took her to the vet. Without blood work, acknowledgement of any health markers or remark about her age, or a physical, they immediately told him that Dilly needed to lose weight. Then after the physical and administration of pain medication, they told him she’d be fine with rest and be sure to make her glorious fat disappear. In the training, I kept checking my texts, feeling so helpless and sad about Dilly’s suffering. Then I read we were told to put her on a diet. Of course, my mind went to fear and problem solving, it was so easy to go to this internal place of fat fear. This, I reasoned, is our fault. That her muscle has turned to fat over the years and we’ve kept feeding her despite it. Suddenly I looked around me at amazing people discuss fat stigmatization in medical offices. This new awesome community of truth-tellers reminded me of my own many misdiagnosed and harmful medical experiences where fat automatically meant disease- and here I was planning on putting fatphobia and suffering on my beloved pet. A pet that may or may not live much longer due to being old. Period. I told my partner we weren’t starving Dilly. We were going to keep loving her, give her body rest, and listen to what her body needed. My new community supported me with the wonderful validation of how dangerously ridiculous this was of the doctor with empathy for my sadness. I went home and a week later Dilly was walking again, wagging her tail at strangers, cocking her head as we spoke to her about current events and barking at dogs on the television, and telling her younger sister Cassie she was ready to play. Trusting her body as she trusted ours to take care of her and comfort her was another lesson in my own body trust. Learning to tell other people and not be thrown health concerns based on zero evidence, was pivotal in my learning to trust fat community.
While I physically ache at my dog’s absence, she gave me and my body the power to recognize belonging. She helped me heal, and accept love and kindness from others. It feels more than coincidental that her passing happened when I was surrounded by fat community. I learned to feel respect in my body and boundaries, and noticed a shift from not internalizing sadness into physical fat shame. It’s a weird process, but feeling my body used to mean being reminded of the size that isn’t accepted. Now, a feeling is a feeling and I get to have those and a body that can feel the complexities of emotions. This medicine isn’t received lightly. Though my heart still throbs with grief, I’m forever grateful for her precious soul. Her death came at the perfect time, to remind me to see and hold others and allow others to do so for me in the hopes of liberating our tender hearts together.